Passing by Nella Larsen

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Various identities have investigated the definition of identification and the question that comes with it. A relevant identification issue is moving through. For example, the color of the skin will decide how people perceive and treat an individual person. In such circumstances, a caste is believed to be higher than the other, and the race considered to be poorer finds itself shut out of fair treatment and equal rights in the economy and political life. According to Wetzorke, much as the civil rights movement was the dawn of hope for African Americans, the fact is that the Jim Crow politics existed for many years (6).

One of the assumptions that drive literature is that it is a reflection of the reality and a mirror of the society. It is therefore not uncommon to find various authors effectively capturing reality and representing it in the book for the current and future generation. Nella Larsen wrote the book 1929 Passing in order to put the issue of passing, its dynamics, and its impact on the individual and the greater society.

About the Author

Nella Larsen (1891- 1964), was an author who made an immense contribution in the Harlem Renaissance. She became the first Afro-American to receive Guggenheim Fellowship which was a very prestigious award. She had a strong desire to join the group of negro writers.

She was born as Nelly Walker in Chicago Illinois. Unlike her other siblings, Larsen was visibly black. Though Larsen’s historical records are not clear, coupled with the fact that she was a highly secretive person, there is sufficient evidence to show that Larsen faced racial tension not only in the neighborhood but in the family as well (Hutchinson 14). It was therefore not surprising that she would later come to write about race in America and survival tactics such as passing.

The Summary of the Book

Passing is the second work by Larsen (the other being Quicksand). The setting is 1920s Harlem. It is a story about two friends who had been friends since their childhood. Irene Redfield is the protagonist and Clare Kendry and John Bellew being the antagonist.

Irene ends up marrying a physician, and they boast of a comfortable town house where they live with their two boys. The lives of Irene and her family mirrors what DuBois describes as the talented and mythical part of the Negroes which forms a part of the entire negro society. Irene, unlike her black husband, is not visibly black. Therefore, she has an opportunity to do passing if she so wished. She did not. She preferred to live her natural life and strive for opportunities.

However, Irene gets an unlikely experience when she meets her old friend Clare Kendry. Clare is a light skinned girl. She exploits this opportunity to penetrate the world of the white people in order to have assess the opportunities that are availed to them (Larsen 14). Irene view is that the life that Clare is living is not only artificial but also dangerous. However, for the first time in her life, the impact of the encounter with Clare makes Irene start having questions about her identity for the first time in her life.

The author uses the third person narrator- the omniscient view of narration. She divides the book into three main sections, just like a playwright would do. Larsen does not reveal the behavior of the characters. On the contrary, she has employed vivid description and lets the reader to derive meaning from the text. The tone and the mood of the book is retrospective with the book heavily reflecting on the life of Clare Kendry and the identity conflict that she faces in her decisions.

The Process of Passing

During the time that the book was written, the country was experiencing the Great Migration. Hordes of black youths who were staying in the rural areas migrated to the cities which were located in the Midwestern as well as the Northern parts of the US. For example, in New York, color lines were visible and invisible obstacles that prohibited the places and opportunities that were accessible to the people of the black race.

In such an environment, the greatest challenge was how to behave in such hard circumstances. On one hand, being white attracted better opportunities for education and work. On the other hand, being black meant less opportunities even with the same qualifications as a white person. The dilemma then became choosing to live naturally as a black, or pass, imitate the white people, and be accepted by them.

On their part, the white Americans had taken a rather hard stance on who exactly would be referred to as a white person. According to them, anyone who had a trace of the blood of an ancestry that was not black was as good as non-white. This was known as the one-drop rule. When related to other historical events, this was quite a hard stance that locked out many people from the privileges of the white people. It is therefore not surprising that people like Barrack Obama were viewed as presidential candidates with a flaw because they are black. In fact, Obama spent a considerable amount of campaign resources fighting the false allegations that were levelled against him.

The author has adopted psychological realism in order to show the impact that passing has on its subjects. She uses symbolism in order to show the motivation behind the process of passing. For example, the silver spoon in the novel is a symbol of the immense wealth and other opportunities that was at the disposal of the white race.

Through psychological realism, the author gives unrestricted access to the character of Irene and understands her motivation and the rationale behind her behavior. For example, the reader learns that Irene believes in climbing up the social ladder by all means necessarily irrespective of the challenges she faces. Clare would rather take the shortcut, pass, and have better opportunities.

The Process of Assimilation

The opportunity to assimilate starts from the chance that the skin can allow someone to do the passing. If it does, the next step towards assimilation is to conceal the identity as long as someone can. Clare has successfully managed to hide her identity, albeit a few instances where her husband jokingly calls her a nigger and the fact that those around her can tell that she has Negro eyes. However, she has to behave differently in order to make sure that her husband does not get to know about her black heritage. Her husband John is a racist person who makes crude comments about the blacks.

However, if one gets assimilated, it does not mean that he or she has reached the Promised Land. In fact, that might be the genesis of other set of challenges. Clare knows that too well. For instance, Clare faces the harsh reality that acquiring wealth does not necessarily translate to being happy. When she is with the white people, she often feels that she is out of place. She looks back at the past life of the black people with nostalgia. Her encounter with Irene gives her an opportunity to

In connection to this, the concept of the tragic mullato is worth giving attention to. This was a stock character in Harlem literature who would deny her blackness. Unfortunately, her behavior would lead to danger and therefore tragedy. Clare faces the same fate, she dies even before her transformation.

How Passing Affected the Blacks

Passing comes with confusion and fear too. The fear comes from the implication that comes when the identity of the person who is passing is revealed. For example, Clare, through mental associations, makes a number of impressions that shows the confusion and the fear that she faces every single day.

Another critical disadvantage is that the success of a person who is passing is heavily dependent on other people, in this case the white people (Kathleen 65). For instance, a black light skinned lady who passes as white and is married by a white man has to depend on the husband for opportunities. Thus, in case of a divorce, such a lady is left vulnerable and easily losses the social status.

In the process of passing, it is possible that one can be vulnerable to danger which would have been avoided if one was to live a normal life. In the book, Clare’s husband is a white bigot who has a poor perception on black people. The reader cannot help but blame the troubles of Clare on discontent. Due to this impact, it is not surprising that Clare, paradoxically, desires to go back right to the same community that she has taken much time and effort to shun- the African American community.

However, its worth noting that the mulatto in torn between the white world and their black world. In often cases, it is difficult for them to trace and identify their identity. In addition to that, it becomes very difficult to pledge loyalty to either race. This identity can take long to resolve.

Postcolonial literature states that the black person has gone through indoctrination to believe that being black is inferior. The white people use this as a psychological weapon in order to perpetuate neocolonialism.

Lastly, passing can adversely affect the future of a person. For example, if a lady is passing, and she decides to get a child with a white husband, there is some likelihood that the new-born can be black. In such a scenario, there is a direct evidence that one is passing. Similarly, passing makes someone deny his or her family bonds. In case someone later comes to change, going back to the family and the greater society, as Clare desires, is a daunting task. It has been observed that most people who pass later come to live a life with regrets.


The book has a few weakness, it was praised upon publication for its significant and consequential exploration to the issues of gender, sexuality, and most importantly, race. Irene Redfield allows herself to believe that being white is better despite being an educated African American woman in her own right. Though there a lot of changes between that time and now, the book is all the more relevant and is highly recommended.

Works Cited

Hutchinson, George. In Search of Nella Larsen: A Biography of the Color Line. Cambridge,


Larsen, Nella. Quicksand &, Passing. Blacksburg, 2010.

Wetzorke, Robert. Passing and the Problem of Identity in Afro-American Literature. Rutledge,


Wehnert, Kathleen. Passing: An Exploration of African-Americans on Their Journey for an

Identity Along the Colour Line. Hamburg, 2010.

October 12, 2022

Sociology Culture Life


Identity Work

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